Saturday, 17 March 2012

Kinky Coincidences

Sometimes coincidences are just waiting to happen, hanging in the air. Sometimes they're the warmest surprise possible.
A couple of months back I succumbed to my inevitable inability to sleep on long-haul flights and decided just too power through with the biggest back-to-back movie fest this side of a teenage girl's slumber party (I decided not to wear the pink nightie for reasons of taste). 

As a self-professed film snob with a love of art house and 50-seater cinemas and a hatred of any film with big red letters on a white poster, flights are perfect. I get to stock up on all the guilty pleasures that looked half good but weren't worth a tenner and enduring the Vue/Odeon/Scummyworld. 

So, Planet of the Apes and some Simon Pegg one down, I found Kinky Boots. Made in 2005, this Little England comedy played on well trodden lines - rising unemployment in manufacturing, London as some kind of bizarre metropolis and laughing at people with funny voices. As it turned out, the 90-minute piece tipped just on the right side of charming. 

Reluctant shoe factory owner Charlie has no idea how to save his ailing Northampton business, happens to stumble into a transvestite cabaret show in London, the show's star Lola complains about the lack of comfortable high-heeled latex boots for 6ft tall men and the rest is as you'd expect, with Nick Frost playing the chief fat-bloke-who-originally-mocks-the-tranny-but-whose-views-are-changes character. 

The fact I was travelling back from India watching a film about the problems in UK manufacturing was an irony that didn't go unnoticed given the continuing trend towards outsourcing to Asia. 

A few weeks later, I attended the launch of Mary Portas' new Channel Four show Mary's Bottom Line. The firebrand retail consultant has visited a factory in Greater Manchester to manufacture British Kinky Knickers using Nottingham lace at an all-but-closing business. The knickers are a bit racy, feature a dubious explicit pun on the packaging and are not what those who run the factory are used to handling. Sound familiar? 
An old shoe factory (left) faces Spiral Records
Last week, I visited Northampton to have a look at the only Rennie Mackintosh-designed house  in England. I couldn't resist the opportunity to check out a record shop a couple of people had told me was excellent Spiral Records is more than just tucked away, it's practically buried 6ft deep on St Michael's Road round the corner from a 'Jesus Centre' and by a dual carriageway. 

My visit is brief, eyes widening with each piece of rare vinyl (some really nice 50/60s compilations) and an impressively wide selection - Orchestra Baobab nestle by the Sex Pistols. 

Alex, who has run the shop for ten years, is taken aback when I introduce myself, not least because the fella manning the small coffee stand within the shop is also called Alex. Business is decent, Alex says. Overheads aren't what they are in the town centre and competition to buy trade vinyl isn't as tough as elsewhere. I point out the old abandoned factory opposite, asking whether it was a shoe factory, yes, he nods but it's supposed to have been torn down years ago. Are there any of the Cobblers' famous factories still going? "Just one," says Alex. "Divine, it was in this film a while back y'know, Kinky something…"

I finish his sentence, thank him and walk out happy that a few little things in my world have quietly collided. 

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The House that Mackintosh Built

A trip down to Northampton to see the House that Mackintosh Built was a treat at the weekend. Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh has been described as an art deco visionary and the Glasgow School of Art is an international tourist attraction. 
Mackintosh's one work south of the border is a fascinating visit. Northampton model engineer Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke decided to commission Mackintosh to take up the design of his £250 house, an astronomical sum, in 1917 after a chance meeting on a golf course. 
Mackintosh, initially referred, had fallen out of favour, and work, after marrying long-time love and collaborator Margaret MacDonald instead of his boss' daughter. He would go on to live in the south of France where rents were cheap and Mcdonald's work sold well but took Bassett-Lowke's commission and redesigned the terraced house at 78 Derngate from Scotland using model's designed by Bassett-Lowke and never visited the house itself. 
Now restored to its Bassett-Lowke hay day, the house is now conjoined with a gallery, gift shop and cafe but is an entirely authentic experience. Under the watchful eye of the Heritage Trust, its restoration took several years and £2m. The narrow property brings in strong geometric patterns with clever extensions that the wealthy entrepreneur was able to whisk past local planning permission. The back of the house, and its balconies, looked over the fields of Cow Meadow while the front of the property comes straight out onto the street. 
What makes the little home fascinating is the mix of the unmistakable monochrome flourishes of Mackintosh with bizarre inventions from its model-maker owner. As such we get little internal windows and hot and cold water indoors from the Scot juxtaposed with light fittings from boats installed by nautical nut Bassett-Lowke. 
It is the latter's egotistical arrogance that makes the underpins the fun to be gleaned from the visit. The ostentatious expense of his possessions - an electric clock, an indoor toilet, a wet room, adjustable lighting cords - is entirely for show, evidenced most amusingly by his own plain bedroom matched against a stripey black, blue and gold ensemble in the guest quarters. His long-suffering wife Rachel said she got her own way on the bedroom. 
Mackintosh's designs are excellent. The black and gold walled bombastic hallway features an art nouveau screen instilled with stained glass, a wooden bannister designed in the shape of a stem and trees painted on the wall in geometric triangles to give the impression of a forest. The outside of the house also bears a black and white stripy motif that belies either a love of Notts County or a Bettlejuice fascination surely? 
There are great touches everywhere in the property, Bassett-Lowke's love of boats even came down to the horse hair carpets, embedded within wooden flooring to become flush to the floorboards and never move. There's even models he created to advise the British army during WW2 around the house. 
This strange little phenomena provides reason enough to visit the Midlands town. The idiosyncratic tour guides and the introductory video by an hilariously bland Eric Knowles from the Antiques Roadshow provide the perfect off-set to a thoroughly engaging and unique experience.